Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Limits of Control 2: Cruise Control (The American)

Have you ever met a hit man in real life? I haven't, but in films like Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009) and now Anton Corbijn's less interesting The American (2010), they're portrayed as nameless, monastic, sharply dressed professionals who spend a lot of time in picturesque European cities where they perfect their craft in solitude. That they kill people is less important than the fact that they do it elegantly. In Corbijn's film, an American-born assassin who sometimes goes by the name "Mr. Butterfly" (George Clooney) flees to Italy after a pair of hired guns ambush him outside of his Scandinavian fortress of solitude. Once there, his handler, Pavel (Johan Leyson), assigns him to build a custom rifle for a female contract killer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). We're evidently not supposed to be very concerned about who's behind the hit, who's in front of it, or why (Mr. Butterfly certainly isn't, trusting Pavel for much longer than is dramatically credible), because the second that you do stop to think about these things--and considering that the film doesn't have that many characters--it becomes painfully obvious where this is headed.

The schoolboy mythology of these films can be traced at least as far back as Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), and Jarmusch brought a certain poignancy to it in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). Here--working from a screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentlemen (1990), which I haven't read--Corbijn sees it as an excuse for a George Clooney movie: Mr. Butterfly is another one of Clooney's bachelor workaholics who long to settle down with a good woman. As the film opens, Mr. Butterfly is living in a secluded cabin in Sweden, where he's kept company by a young lady (Irena Björklund). But when she learns a little too much about how he makes his money, Mr. Butterfly coolly shoots her in the back of the head. In Italy, when Pavel asks who she was, Mr. Butterfly replies that she was, "A friend." You see, Mr. Butterfly used to be a professional, but now he's going soft, making too many "friends." Pavel advises him not to make anymore, and sends Mr. Butterfly to a dusty secluded village to hide out for a while, which would be perfect if not for the fact that everybody he meets there speaks perfect English, including the local mechanic. He's played by Filippo Timi, who played Mussolini in Marco Bellocchio's Vincere (2009), and here he smolders his way through a brief walk-on role, as if auditioning to be the next Javier Bardem.

Needless to say, there is a woman. Her name is Clara (Violante Placido), and she is a prostitute. Never having been to a brothel anywhere, let alone provincial Italy, I have to take it as an item of faith that there are prostitutes this attractive and healthy-looking, although one wonders why Clara doesn't give it up and become a Hollywood actress. However, the town's population never seems higher than double digits (there are numerous scenes of Mr. Butterfly sitting in deserted cafés and walking along empty streets), which makes me wonder if a fully-staffed brothel would be economically viable. The way that the mechanic smolders, you wouldn't think that he has to pay for it. Neither, incidentally, does Mr. Butterfly, who's such a stud in the sack that Clara stops charging him and starts seeing him outside of work. One thing I absolutely can't accept is that, during one of their initial encounters, Mr. Butterfly would eat her pussy and kiss her on the mouth. How many dicks have been in those orifices that day alone? Then again, Mr. Butterfly appears to be the brothel's only client, and the room where Clara plies her trade is so clean and new-looking that it's almost as if it were designed and built specifically for their meetings.

Incidentally, Mr. Butterfly's name refers to his tramp-stamp tattoo, and at one point he's shown reading a book on butterflies. Later, during a rendezvous with Mathilde, set in an idyllic spot in the woods, a butterfly happens upon the scene, and he remarks that it's endangered. This sets up the final shot (spoiler alert!) in which, after Mr. Butterfly is killed, we see the same butterfly flying higher and higher, symbolizing his soul ascending towards heaven. Uh-huh. Oh, and did I mention that, early in the film, Mr. Butterfly befriends a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonachelli)? When Benedetto asks him what he does for a living, Mr. Butterfly claims to be a photographer who's taking pictures of the area ('cause he shoots people, get it?). Benedetto then inquires if he's researched the town's history, and when Mr. Butterfly answers that he hasn't, Benedetto remarks, I kid you not, that Americans try to live without history. Thud.

This is Corbijn's second feature after Control (2007). That film, a biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), was stately and professional but not brilliant; I watched it the same week that I first saw Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. (also 2007), and it didn't benefit from the comparison. This film is also stately and professional, like Mr. Butterfly, and it's enjoyable to the extent that you're willing to forget about plot and character, and simply soak up the mood and atmosphere of the film.

You could also say the same about The Limits of Control, which is an even sillier movie. How is it then that a reviewer like Roger Ebert could pan Jarmusch's film so viciously, and then turn around and award this one four stars? I could go all Rosenbaum and make the case that, while Jarmusch's film is in part an attack on American imperialism, The American, despite its title, doesn't engage with politics at all; like its protagonist, it tries to live without history. Mr. Butterfly doesn't work for the CIA, and the only people he kills are his Swedish friend with benefits and some generic henchmen who are trying to kill him. Mathilde's intended target, meanwhile, is Mr. Butterfly--a plot twist which calls to mind Martin McDonagh's recent In Bruges (2008), which was a more enjoyable hit man movie. In other words, the film views the idea of killing for profit "existentially," as something divorced from politics.

That's certainly a limitation that shouldn't be overlooked, but I don't think it accounts for the vast differences in how the two films have been received. (In Bruges, after all, alludes to the sex scandal in the Catholic church, although that aspect of the film has been largely overlooked by reviewers.) Rather, I think that The American, for all its moodiness and withholding exposition, is simply a more traditional sort of film--what Ebert would call, "a real movie." Mr. Butterfly never does anything as inexplicable as ordering two espressos in separate cups, or walking into an art gallery to look at one painting and then leaving. Ultimately, whether you prefer The Limits of Control or The American says as much about you as it does about the movies. And being the perverse guy that I am (I'm a huge fan of late Godard), I like The Limits of Control.


  1. I couldn't agree more with everything in this post... I feel as if I wrote it myself. What a reassurance that I'm not completely crazy. "The American" seems to me as almost a "dumbed down" version of "Limits", to appeal a little more to the mainstream American palette. It seems to me that, if you're going to go down this road, you need to go all the way, as Jarmusch did in "Limits." I found it much more fulfilling. And what a cast! Roger Ebert is a legend, and perhaps still the best in the business. But, how anyone with his established tastes can be so critical of "Limits", but love "The American", just baffles me in a frustrating way.

  2. Ebert must've had a bad day when reviewing The Limits of Control. The American was a good movie anyways, but after 10 minutes of Limits i was so mesmerised, felt like i was watching art itself. Such a shame that it's so underappreciated.